Sunday, January 25, 2009

Who Gets Press Credentials?

Adam Sowder, a young man who worked briefly for me as a freelance writer/intern about two years ago--and did it very well--showed up at our Roanoke Regional Writers Conference yesterday and in the final session of the day, a roundtable discussion of the future of the written word, he asked a question that I think we all misunderstood and in our bloviated pontification, we missed a very good opportunity. Adam is finishing his degree(s) at VCU soon and needs a good answer to his excellent question.

Adam, who did not get the answer he wanted, was frustrated and e-mailed me this a.m. with this: "I attempted to ask everyone, including the professor [Doug Cumming of W&L], if they think independent citizen journalists have the ability to acquire the same interpersonal source material as do syndicated or salaried reporters working for major news corporations. In other words, is it possible to develop credentials without the aid of a corporate brand?

"... I dutifully believe in the concept of apprenticeship ... yet, I have little faith in large hierarchical chains of command, especially growing up with the emergence of this new social media on the Internet."

I copied the e-mail to Doug Cumming, Keith Ferrell, a veteran journalist/author, and two-time Pulitzer Prize nominated reporter Rex Bowman of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Here's my reply to Adam:

The answer, as I know it is, "yes and no." Depends on who you ask for credentials. Most organizations at this point are a bit leery of citizen journalists, even as the blogosphere blossoms. But the day will come when specific credentials are awarded based on the merit of your publishing. Already national-level bloggers are being invited to the White House Press Corps, the conventions and the like, but getting a press pass from the state or the city might prove more problematic. Arts organizations welcome bloggers and even book publishers will provide review copies if your blog is well-read.

Citizen journalism has always been here, but not as it exists--because of the Internet--today. Ever heard of the pamphlet? The town crier? The telephone? Today, however, the citizen journalist, as you well know, has the capability of mass audiences and with that, the responsibility to be a bit better than, say, Matt Drudge, a rumor monger and egomaniac.

The upside of citizen journalism is that it opens us to new voices. The down side: most of those voices are shrill, untrained and full of shit. They also have few followers (except in the case of a Drudge, and that's right-wing politics, which is a different category).

My suggestion in getting your credentials in order is to start at a place where you know you can get credentials and use that credential as a link to the next. When you have several easy-to-get credentials, go to Virginia Tech's press office and get on its mailing list for press releases, then ask for a press credential. Next, go to the local police force and show them you're legit, while asking for a cop shop pass. Then use that one to go to the state police to pick up a press pass there. That press pass will be your entre to other, more significant passes. It takes time, you can do it.

(FEEDBACK--This answer for Adam comes from Doug Cumming:

(Speaking historically and legally, a journalist and a citizen are essentially the same--that is, there are [almost] no special rights that a journalist has … and a citizen has the same rights (of free speech, access to public meetings and records, etc.) that a "journalist" has.

(… Other than access to places that don't excite my news sense very much, like the White House press room and Congressional galleries, we don't need credentials. Credibility is the thing. A newspaper's name behind you helps a lot. But if you work hard to build your own credibility (and audience), more power to you. That comes from good hard reporting (yes, I know that takes a lot of time and money, and I know papers have a lot less of that now), and clear writing. Any citizen can do this, if [the citizen is] willing to apply [himself], and live on the passion of that calling.

(In the last few years, "citizen journalist" has come to mean something more narrow. Problem is, it means a lot of different more-narrow things….

(As for hierarchy and journalism, the two things are entirely different, in my view. I learned journalism not in college, [but] in an informal apprenticeship system [at several newspapers]. When I landed at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in the 1990s, I ran into some hierarchical bureaucracy, and it sucked all the joy and personal responsibility out of journalism, for me.)


  1. Dan, As someone more interested in being a pontificator than a reporter, how did many of the esteemed freelance reporters gain their credentials? Did they not fall into this category as well?


  2. As an aspiring investigative reporter/photojournalist at large focused on hyper-local events, I found this analysis enlightening. I'm too old to go through another 'apprenticeship' per se, but have been schooled by life. Ergo, I think I have something unique to say/report that isn't often heard in mainstream media.

    I have learned ONE thing (the hardway): A reporter has NO friends...or at least shouldn't have if he/she is any good. I'm also learning you MUST take the time/make the effort to cover your fanny because when you start exposing officials and making government power mongers uncomfortable, they WILL conspire and invent a pretext to shut you down, intimidate & threaten you, and even try to destroy/imprison you.

    That's some pretty heavy flack to take for an avocation/profession few take all that seriously. You'd better be passionate about what it means to be a journalist (including the principles on which this nation was founded) or you'll find your flame quickly extinguished. I am that passionate...compulsively so. As they say, freedom isn't free.

    Amicus Curia, Soul Snatcher Productions